The subject of fan-fiction is one which is passionately argued about from both sides; some say anyone writing with someone else’s voice or characters has no value, that originality is key and that someone has no right to appropriate someone else’s voice. On the other side, you get people citing the spinoffs of HP Lovecraft’s writing, the endless imitators of Conan Doyle, and even books like The Penelopiad or Wide Sargasso Sea as kinds of fan-fiction which are not only good but readily accepted by the literary world. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the centre and requires some compromise from both sides.
Broadly speaking, fan-fiction falls into two main categories; unofficial stuff which is written and put up regardless of the wishes of the content creator, and derivative works written often with the blessing of the original estate and a more curated form of relationship. This difference shows itself on more levels than a simple quality one; true “fan-created” writing produced by the nebulous group known as a “fandom” tends to reflect what they want from a fiction; it is a desire to impress upon a known setting and known characters a desired interpretation or understanding of them. This may manifest as the introduction of the author themselves in basic wish-fulfilment scenarios (they are saving their idol, they are loving the love interest), or in changing series canon (euphemistically called an “AU” or alternate universe in order to safely distance this retelling from the actual property.)
The focus of this kind of fan-fiction (for realistically this is the true sense of the term) is on the new author over the original one; whether they perceive a fault in the original property or simply feel they can “improve” on it, they want to make their mark on someone else’s creation. This contrasts with other kinds of derivative writing, such as Wide Sargasso Sea – one rarely sees authorial self-inserts, or new creations stealing the scene, in such works. The authors of these continuations, sequels or prequels seek to expand on, not overwrite, the original text; perhaps filling in gaps in the original narrative (for example Atwood in The Penelopiad filling in an interpretation of Penelope’s side of the Odyssey) but the results are generally well-researched and respectful of the original text; the author is taking an almost medieval approach of authorial authority and revering the original text by turning it into its own canon to which further texts can be added. The aim is to try and emulate and continue the legacy of an author rather than to make a mark on their creation.
What is more, writing any kind of derivative work of this second type is exceptionally difficult, and the belief that it is easy is perhaps what leads to the prevalence of the former type. In essence, the writer of fan-fiction is not only writing an original plot (be it adding their own creation to a known story and exploring the results, combining two stories or whatever) but also aiming to emulate an author’s voice and intent. Authorial intent is almost impossible to gauge in the first place outside of the most simplistic of narratives, and the more closely one attempts to imitate an author’s voice the closer one runs to the risk of simply being a clumsy pastiche or parody. Without making this attempt, however, what is written is no longer viably called a continuation or homage to an original text; simply characters with the names of, and a greater or lesser understanding of the characters of, other characters.
To conclude this evaluation, despite there being a clear similarity in intent (the author so inspired by an existing work they write more in its setting) two distinct kinds of fan-works exist, which are best described as “fan-fiction” and “derivative works.” The former increasingly tends to be erotic in subject, and focused on playing out the fantasies or vision of the author over that of the original creator, even to the extent of adding the author as a character in an imagined relationship with the characters. The latter is more distanced from the original work, and tries to emulate the author’s original intent; however, the inherent difficulties in avoiding being a mere pastiche of a voice, and the almost-impossibility of understanding authorial intent to the level of being able to write that author’s characters as that author would have makes even the best examples of this lacking compared to the originals. In both cases, the tension between close emulation and individual voice becomes clear – if the derivative work is too much the voice of the new author then it does not feel like a true part of a series (but may yet work as an independent novel), but if it is too much an attempt to imitate the original author’s voice it can seem equally unconvincing and unoriginal.